Cristina Gonzalez/Entertainment Director
Overcrowding, disease, famine, loss, utter horror. That’s what 80-year-old Suly Chenkin recalls when she speaks about her childhood. It’s what she calls the “survival of her first pandemic, a pandemic of hate.”
Chenkin, who was born in Kovno, Lithuania, was only 10 months old when Nazi soldiers invaded her hometown, taking her and her parents Riva and Solomon Baicovitz, captive.
Chenkin told her story to a virtual audience of 260 people as part of FIU’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony, on Wednesday, Jan.27.
The day, also known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Over 7,000 Jews were liberated that day. It is estimated that over 1.1 million lives were lost.
Chenkin would spend the first three years of her life inside the Kovno Ghetto. She recalls being “lucky” enough to have a small room where she and her parents could be together, a room they also shared with eight other families.
Her father, Solomon, was in charge of bread distribution for all the Jews in the ghetto. Often, people would try to bribe him for extra rations. According to Chenkin, he never agreed.
“He would always say, ‘If I give you extra, I’m taking food away from someone else’ and he never did. Not even for his own family. Not for himself, my mother or even his small child,” she said.
That loyalty earned him the trust of his boss, who was not only a Nazi but a member of the SS.
When Chenkin’s parents heard that children were being sent to concentration and extermination camps, they grew desperate. They had to find a way to get her out before the Nazis returned.
This was when they heard of a woman named Miriam Shulman, a Jew who was posing as a Christian to help Lithuanian children escape into the Christian side of the city.
Chenkin’s parents had to make the hardest decision of their lives: they had to give their child away to a complete stranger.
On May 11, 1944, her parents gave Chenkin a sleeping potion, put her in a potato sack and onto the back of a Nazi truck that was headed to a grinding mill.
Because of her father’s relationship with the SS soldier, he was able to convince him to take the truck to the mill so that potato bread could be made for the ghetto. He had no knowledge of the precious cargo that was in the sack.
On an unscheduled stop, Shulman retrieved the sack that Chenkin was in.
While Shulman took most of the children to an orphanage, she took a liking to Chenkin and so she decided to bring her to live with her and her three children.
As Nazis continued to invade Kovno, Shulman fled with the children to Israel. A trip that took 10 months to complete.
For three years, Chenkin lived with a woman who she now looked to as a mother.
Soon after Chenkin’s parents sent her away, the remaining prisoners in the ghetto were taken to concentration camps. The men to Dachau in Germany and the women to Stuhoff in Poland.
Although a few months later the Soviet Army liberated Kovno, the ghettos had been burned to the ground. In her mind, Chenkin believed her parents died and she would never see them again.
Out of the 40,000 Jews that lived in Kovno, only 2,000 survived.
It wasn’t until September of 1946, that Chenkin not only learned that her parents were alive but that they had been desperately searching for her. Her parents had been taken to Cuba by her father’s brother who had immigrated to the country before the war began.
In February of 1947, Chenkin got her documentation and was able to leave Israel and reunite with her family in Cuba. It had been three years.
During her time in Cuba, Chenkin recalls everyone being friendly.
She walked in with the mindset that it was the Jews vs. the enemy, that’s what she had always known. However, after spending time with people who welcomed her despite who she was, she realized something.
“In Cuba, I realized that it doesn’t matter what God you pray to as long as there is goodness in your heart,” Chenkin said.
After Fidel Castro came into power and her parent’s businesses were confiscated, they left Cuba.
Chenkin’s life would take her to Miami, Charlotte, and then finally to New York, where she lived for 26 years before moving back to Charlotte.
Since coming to the states, Chenkin kept in touch with Shulman, who was able to fill in the missing pieces of her life story. She often met with her in New York and Israel, until she passed away in 1990.
Chenkin married late in life to a man who was a liberator in the third wave of Omaha beach. He passed away last year in 2020, they were married for 31 years.
She now continues to share her life story not only in remembrance of her family and the over 6 million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust but as a reminder to people that we can never let something so horrific happen again.
In response to the insurrection at the state Capitol on Jan. 6, Chenkin said it made her scared for the world and that she wanted people to remember something that she’s learned over the years.
“Anger, hate only destroys you, not the object of your anger,” she said.
Cristina Gonzalez/Entertainment Director